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Pakistan’s Journey Back to Dark Ages?

Publishing Date: January 30th 2011

By: Bushra Khaliq

The recent verdict of a lower court, sentencing a Christian woman to death in a blasphemy case and consequent murder of Punjab Governor who supported the imprisoned woman, has put forth the very vital question-weather Pakistani society has become intolerant, violent and extremist to the point of incorrigible.
The Asia Bibi case was occurred in June 2009 in Pakistan’s Punjab province when a group of female Muslim laborers complained that Asia Bibi, a Christian woman and a fellow farm laborer, had made derogatory remarks against the Islamic Holy book and Prophet Mohammed. A police investigation was opened, which led to a trial and guilty verdict for Asia. The verdict has attracted worldwide attention.
According to details Asia Bibi- a farm laborer was asked to fetch water by the co workers; she complied, but some of her Muslim fellow workers refused to drink the water as they considered Christians to be “untouchable”. Apparently some arguments ensued. There had already been a running feud between Asia and a neighbor about some property damage. Later some coworkers complained to a local cleric that Asia Bibi has made derogatory remarks about the Islamic Holy book and the Prophet . A mob came to her house, beating her and members of her family before she was rescued by the police. However, the police initiated an investigation about her remarks resulting in her arrest and prosecution under Blasphemy charges. She spent more than a year in jail. In November 2010, a judge of the lower court sentenced her to death by hanging. Additionally, a fine of an equivalent of $1,100 was imposed.
During the trial many from her village (in fact, almost the entire village council) testified against her as to having heard her make the remarks and reaffirmed them twice. The exact words allegedly used by Asia Bibi, although central to the accusation, remain unknown, as under Pakistani blasphemy law, to repeat them, even in accusation, would be to commit the same offense.
It may be recalled that Blasphemy laws were introduced by US-supported dictator Gen Zia ul Haq in 1980s. Since then hundreds of persons; both Muslim and non-Muslims faced blasphemy charges and convicted under the law with death penalty in most of the cases. Between 1986 to 2007, over 647 people are charged with offences under the blasphemy laws. Half of them were non-Muslims.  20 of those charged were murdered during the process of trial in courts and prisons premises. 
The latest incident is clear indicative that Pakistani society is totally dominated by traditional religious values. Although the assassinated Governor Taseer was not accused of blasphemy, his crime was to seek presidential pardon for an illiterate peasant Christian woman accused of blasphemy.
In his court testimony, the Governor’s assassin proudly declared that he was executing Allah’s will. Hundreds of lawyers showered him with rose petals while he was in police custody. Two hundred lawyers signed a pledge vowing to defend him for free. This kind of mass frenzy, loaded with religious extremism taking new heights is matter of great concern for the progressive forces of Pakistan.
The local intelligentsia that always claims that Pakistan’s silent majority is fundamentally secular and tolerant is also finding it hard to prove the argument in the aftermath of the murder of the Governor who dared to defend the case of an alleged blasphemer. The frequent argument that the religious parties don’t get the popular vote and so cannot really be popular is also needed to be reviewed as rising public support to extreme right is an alarming bell for the radical, left and progressive forces in Pakistan.
Even without winning elections, the Islamic parties are in powerful position, determining major social and political issues than election-winning mainstream bourgeoisie political parties. For a long time the religious right has dictated what we can or cannot teach in our public and private schools. No government ever had the guts to dilute the hate materials being forced down young throats. Their unchallenged power has led to Pakistan’s cultural desertification because they violently oppose music, dance, theatre, art, and intellectual inquiry.
The current PPP government has capitulated and totally bowed to extremists’ pressure. The prime minister has announced not to touch the blasphemy laws. The post–assassination situation has totally swung to religious parties. The religious fanatics are going to be powerful enough to dictate their terms even without any parliamentary representation.
Ms. Sherry Rahman, the brave parliamentarian who dared to table a bill to reform the blasphemy law, is now bunkered down. She is said to be receiving two death threats an hour. Her own party PPP is in power and the Minister for interior had advised her to leave the country as government cannot help her save her life. The Army high command made no public statement on the governor’s assassination, although it is vocal on much else.
The Pakistani media role also reflects the public mood dominated by the religious extremism. This was apparent from the unwillingness and hesitation of TV anchors to condemn the assassination of the Governor by a fanatic, as well as from images of the smiling murderer being feted all around. Mullah guests filled the screens of most TV channels.
The dominant section of the Pakistani civil society thinks that the recent incident has helped rise of extremism, impacting adversely the women rights movement in the country. Many believe that octopus of religious extremist is getting bigger and bigger especially after the US occupation of Afghanistan and Pakistan’s government joining of the war on terrorism. Secular sections of the society view that if the US had never come to Afghanistan, Pakistan would not be the violent mess that it is today.
The widening socio-economic gap among the sections of the society is also playing important role in sliding the poor sections of society towards the fundamentalist political parties. Pakistan has become a society where the justice system does not work, education is as rotten as it can be, and visible corruption goes unpunished. Add to all this a million mullahs in a million mosques who exploit people’s frustrations.
Americans must go out of Afghanistan. The sooner they can withdraw – the better. But Pakistani intellectuals also realize that the situation has become so serious that even US withdrawal will not end Pakistan’s problems. Those fighting the Americans aren’t exactly Vietnamese-type socialists or nationalists. The Taliban-types want a full cultural revolution: beards, burqas, 5 daily prayers, no music, no art, no entertainment, and no contact with modernity except for getting its weapons.
The rampant situation has become a colossal challenge for the already feeble progressive forces and women rights movement of Pakistan. The mullah will continue to get stronger as long as US presence in the region in the name of war on terrorism continues.